Some time back at the beginning of November, everyone was all atwitter about how Google Streets will make photography obsolete. Why bother taking photos when it’s already been photographed by Google, the image is available on Google, etc.
I think that’s silly, and not just because of the obvious refutation that there are actually a lot of places Google Streets doesn’t cover, such as your kitchen table or your back yard or your bedroom closet.
But suppose we had an amazing array of cameras that reached everywhere and photographed everything, all the time. That is, we could, on demand, browse through a library of images and find one that was made at any spot on the planet at any given moment in history, with the camera pointed in whatever direction we chose. Would that make photography obsolete?
Well, it would certainly change things. But in essence, what it means is that we’ve replaced going out into the world and finding photographs with browsing through a computerized library and finding photographs. This is not quite the revolutionary change that everyone seems to think it would be.
Beyond that, though, it presupposes that the entire point to going out with a camera and making photographs is the end result – photographs. And, in the end, I just don’t think that any more.
Last night I had the good fortune to be at the awards ceremony for something called the Young Playwrights Program, which puts professional playwrights in classrooms so that they can teach kids to write plays. I think this is important. And I was pleased when playwright Paul Mullen took the time in his speech to tell the assembled throng of young playwrights that making plays matters. He told them that theatre is not just about mounting another production of a play written centuries ago by a guy who’s dead. It’s also about making new plays. He told them that when you write a play, something important happens, even if your play is never produced.
When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if you never share the photographs you make. When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if Google Streets has already made nearly identical photos of that spot. The important and worthwhile thing that happens is that you saw something, and you made a photograph of it. When you did this, you changed, inside. You are not the same person after making the photograph as you were before you made it. It’s a small change, yes, but little things are sometimes important things.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
The Google Streets argument says that from a spectator’s point of view, there’s no meaningful difference between the photos you make, and the photos made by the automated camera on top of the Google van driving around. What the proponents of this argument are missing is that photography is not a spectator sport.